Archives for the month of: November, 2011

Los Angeles.  Its a place like no other- for better or for worse.  One of the qualities its most known for is its (drumroll, please) exorbitant traffic!  We all know the story of how is came to be:  the glory of this start-studded sunbelt city includes the tearing out of the red car system and replacing it with freeways, helping the previously small town become a car owner’s heaven.  As the bedroom communities spread further and further out, more people needed to drive into the city for work- and little about that fact has changed in the last 40 years, except perhaps that it has become more crowded and slightly less smoggy.

There are a myriad of reasons why we need to reconsider transportation in Los Angeles, and that need is old news.  Between political and economic problems, the city doesn’t have the power to do more than incremental changes- many of which have already happened and seem to be working out well.  The bigger problem, in my opinion is the urban form.  LA is the densest city in America, if you can believe it.  Denser (on average) than NYC.  Its this southwestern low-rise density that lets us have lots of crowding and still manage to sprawl all over southern California.  Because of this density, its very difficult to recreate the public transportation system that was once here.  What can we do about it?  That is an excellent question.  And one I’m not yet prepared or qualified to answer.  I believe its going to take a bit more studying and digger of this problem before I can claim to know what the next steps should be.

In the mean time, I found this delicious infographic on Good.is on how people move through LA.  Its relevant and  quite nice, so here it is:

Be sure to check out the full article on Good.  And I’ll be sure to figure out what LA is/should/would be doing with its transportation routes and system.

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Isn’t it great the way the green movement has become so popular?  Or, maybe a better question:  IS it great that the green movement has become so popular?  Sure, a lot of people understand the importance of greening the way we live.  As I wrote in my post about Women in Green Forum, there are people in many, many industries who are making a point of becoming more sustainable.  Cups are made from corn, electric cars are on the market, and people are using bamboo flooring instead of hardwood.

“Being Green” has become a popular trend in many markets, not the least of which the planning and design field that I’m most familiar with.  Today, its everywhere you look!  I feel, however, that therein lies the problem.  If being “green” is popular today, what will be popular tomorrow?  Next week?  In 10 years?  Sustainable living can’t just be a fad to really work.  It can’t be something that only those rich enough can afford, or those “in the know”.  In order to actually make a difference, it has to go beyond the popular topic of the moment and into a normal aspect of our lives.  Remember after 9/11?  How everyone you knew had an American car flag?  Patriotism was the soup of the day.  How quickly did that get edged out when the political tide ebbed?  Though its not the best analogy, I think its brings up a fair question:  will “being green” ever become more than just a fad with the general population?

Part of what leads me to believe that it isn’t integrated enough into our psyche yet is the way it needs to be advertised.  When some product, service, or venue has any remotely sustainable aspect, its shoved in your face.  Ok, ok.  So maybe this is because in the scheme of things, its kind of new to think about materials and waste in the way we’re starting to now.  But I won’t consider society really, completely aware of the necessity of a sustainable lifestyle until it becomes the norm. The day I can buy coffee and they DON’T think its weird that I ask them to fill up the travel mug I brought from home will be a happy day indeed.

It was incredibly sad, at least for me, when Borders announced that they were going under.

This might seem somewhat ironic, or at least hypocritical, coming from an urban planner of my bent.  In countless papers and debates, I’ve argued (along with many of my colleagues) against the influx of big-box stores into our cities and communities.  No question that when a larger store comes into the picture, it edges out the smaller ones.  When stores like Borders and Barnes and Noble came into the picture, and began spreading out across the country, it definitely became an uphill climb for local bookstores.  As smaller, local stores slowly closed their doors as business went to where the books were cheap and flowed with abundance, we planners and community advocates shook our fists and whined to our city councils.

However, now that a store like Borders is closed, and Blockbuster is slimming down incredibly, I’ve looked back at my patterns of movement and patronage, and realized the big loss involved here.  Sure, I’d rather go to a local book store than a big box one; the same goes for renting movies, and buying coffee.  But in today’s globalized economy, where we expect all the options to be laid out before us, those might be the best we can get, at least for a time.

What it comes down to is WHY these stores are forced to close:  the rage of internet shopping.

I have so many happy memories of running out to Blockbuster with my friends, whether it was at the beginning of a sleepover, all us gals in our PJs, or the beginning of a long night of movie marathons with the fam.  The same goes for Borders- often, after going out for dinner, my family would stop by the local Borders and browse books for an hour or so, usually buying a least a couple.

It simply isn’t the same when you’re downloading a movie onto your laptop, or ordering a book online.  There is really something to be said for the tactile experience of picking up books and flipping through them, feeling the weight of the words you could be enjoying at home.  Whether is was to relax, browse the clearance section, or feed my need for new literature, going to the bookstore, no matter what size it was or who owned it, was a treat.  Same goes for renting movies.

The loss of these store to the internet business is just one more way our internet-obessed society is staying more introverted and home-ridden than ever before.  Since when did kids need to be reminded to go out and play?  How many people have you casually talked to about the latest Stephen King novel, or which comedy flick they’d recommend?  Those casual conversations, the bumping of shoulders with anyone and everyone, obviously doesn’t happen on the internet, where the comments flow like angry rivers because not being face to face, no one is accountable for what they say or do.

I realize its a stretch to call Borders and Blockbuster a third place- and thats not quite what I’m arguing for anyway.  But the lack of these familiar businesses in my neighborhood definitely has resulted in a loss for my community.  Having those physical places to go, interact, and shop is vitally important to the health of a neighborhood.

On the other hand, I’m visiting my local library a lot more.  But thats a story for another day.

When I went to the national APA conference in New Orleans 2 years ago, I went to a session on what was new in LA.  One of the things they spoke about was how Twitter had revolutionized the food truck industry in LA.  And it wasn’t just food trucks in general- it was gourmet food trucks, of all kinds.  No longer was the presence of a  food truck only indicative of a movie set or tons of tasty tacos.  You could get kobe beef, gelato, and Indian food!

I thought it sounded interesting at the time, not only as a person who enjoys a variety of food on the go, but from a planning perspective as well.  The ideas of taking restaurants outside of their solid locations, of which may not be known to much of the general public, and roaming them throughout the city, is great!  In a city as large and diversified as LA, theres really no better way to take your business and spread it around to new audiences.  I’m sure that for the City of LA, its provided new planning issues, such as where are they allowed to park, permitting, etc- but I’d like to think its worth it.

Even better are the new food truck gatherings happening.  Its one thing to see on Facebook or Twitter that your favorite organic hotdogs are coming your way, but when you know they’ll be joined by dessert, lemonade, and something for all of your friends, its even better!  I recently went to one in my neighborhood, and its amazing the amount and diversity of people who come out.  Parked along a major street, 30+ food trucks provided dinner for my group last Friday night.  With some local businesses staying open later to attract the food truck diners, small tables and chairs set up, and music playing from most of the trucks themselves, its become a local event in itself.

Maybe it was the happiness of a belly full of tasty locally made food, but being at the weekly food truck gathering has made me think about what these sorts of events mean to a community.  We don’t have the same kinds of events or live the kinds of lives that brought people in a community together that we used to.  While we obviously still go out and do things, so much of what we do gets us in the car and far away from where we live.  Okay, so Farmers Markets are becoming popular, and those are great- but they attract one kind of crowd, and I feel that these food truck gatherings attract a slightly different one, which is important.  Because like Ray Oldenburg said, we need third place:  a place that isn’t work, and isn’t home.  Its like the local pub, as opposed to the swanky bar we get dressed up to go to.  People need casual places where they can be themselves but also socialize and relax.  Its the kind of thing thats stuck around better in older parts of cities, especially in Europe (think of Parisian cafes and English pubs).  Its something we’re lacking in suburban America.  These food truck gatherings, though, may be a start to something in that direction.  It will be interesting to see how they grow and change how we interact with our communities, and if the stick around long enough to become a permanent thing.  I hope they do.

Due to my fortunate connections with Antioch University and their new low-residency MA Urban Sustainability Program, I was invited to attend their field trips during their residency a few weeks ago.  The first trip was to the NRDC (National Resource Defense Council) of Los Angeles, located in Santa Monica.  While the NRDC does great work in LA and all over the country, our main reason for visiting was to take a tour of the facility, which is LEED Platinum and pretty neat.

So the building is LEED certified and greener than most an all- but what does that mean?  Whats going on there that makes it so much more awesome than any other building?

(achem) The List of Cool Green Components at NRDC LA:

1 – Many components are easy to incorporate into almost any building- it can be as simple as choosing a particular brand of carpeting or lighting.  In this building, however, almost everything inside was made from recycled materials, lacked formaldehyde and other hazardous chemicals often found in building/decorating materials, and was produced locally ( = less fuel/money on shipping)

Check out this lighting device, for example.  All throughout the office were these cool overhead lights that through a simple twist on the common office lighting device, provide light through both the top and bottom, letting light reflect all over the ceiling.  This means a lot more light in the room per bulb!  No point in covering up most of a light bulb with a shade, and then using more lights in each room.

I didn’t nab pictures of all of it, but to give some more examples:  the carpets were made from recycled materials that could be easily broken back down to their original bits and be reused again; the counters in the kitchen and copy room were made of compressed recycled paper and sealed with green sealant; chairs came from recycled plastics; countless desks and tables were made from scraps…the list goes on.  The best part is that they all looked perfectly normal and office classy.

2 – A green building doesn’t have to look like a space ship.  The NRDC building blends in perfectly with the Santa Monica style.

The patio at NRDC manages to be both functional and match the local style, as does the architectural design of the building.

3 – Its about going back to the basics.  People need light and fresh air, and by making those more accessible within the building, you not only cut down on health costs, but on heating and cooling bills as well.

These ceiling “pop-ups” allow for a place for hot air to rise, cooler air to flow in, and natural sunlight to come down.  They look like a natural part of the rest of the building, and are super easy to incorporate into a design

4 – SOLAR PANELS!

So, yes it is true that PVCs are not as efficient as we’d like them to be, are relatively expensive, and can be a pain to install.  But the truth of the matter is, they can seriously cut down on electricity needs from other sources, you can get a hell of a tax break, and most places you’d buy them from come with installation.  Plus, if you’re a relatively handy person, they apparently aren’t that hard to put up.

The moral of the story is: it isn’t that hard to be greener with building!  A story we’ve heard many times before, but this time you’ve heard it with the help of the NRDC.  For more info, check out their website.